The agony and the ecstasy: Two faces of Italian football

At the very moment that the major clubs faced disgrace, the national team stormed to glory. So what does this tell us about Italy? Peter Popham reports
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Tuesday 4 July 2006 was without doubt the darkest day in the history of Italian domestic football. The prosecutor of the sporting court had spoken: the football world was to be turned very deliberately upside down. The nation's most brilliant, famous, ancient and wealthy club, Juventus, was to be relegated - not from the top league of Serie A to Serie B, but into the unthinkable dungeon of Serie C. The team owned by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Milan, scarcely less celebrated and mighty, was to go into Serie B, along with the other two teams fingered in the "Calciopoli" scandal: Fiorentina and Lazio.

If it comes to pass as the prosecutor wishes - and we will find out by 20 July - the best players at the Italian clubs will be scattered across Europe in the process. The Milan and Brazil star Kaka is already contemplating a temporary move to Lyons. Juventus' coach, Fabio Capello, is on his way back to Real Madrid. That is just the beginning of the exodus. "This," said a bitter, anonymous voice at Juventus, "is the way they kill football".

And then, suddenly, the world was the right way up again, and Italy was on top of it. In the space of a minute at the end of extra time in the World Cup semi-final after a brilliant, tormenting game in Dortmund, the Italy strikers Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero made it all right again, plucking victory from near certain defeat at the hands of Germany's robotic penalty shooters, and proving unanswerably what Italy has been striving to prove in every game they have played in this World Cup: that they are players of brilliance, imagination and immense stamina, and that whatever truth there may be in the allegations of the prosecutors, the core values of the men who matter are beyond question.

The day that began like the end of the world ended with hundreds of cars circling the Altar of the Nation in central Rome draped in tricolours and honking; and a beaming Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, warbling O Sole Mio arm-in-arm with the equally ecstatic members of the Azzurri (as the Italy team is known).

It is the peculiar fate of Italy that the country which values "la figura" (beautiful appearance) far more than any issue of substance, seems condemned to cut the most embarrassing and humiliating of figures when it appears on the world stage. It is tempting to see the criminality or accident-proneness, take your pick, of Mr Berlusconi behind this phenomenon.

It was Berlusconi who, during his first stint as prime minister in 1994, while hosting an important gathering of world leaders in Naples, was served notice that he was under criminal investigation for corruption. It was he who, as Italy was about to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, was at risk of being convicted and sentenced to jail for another offence. To pre-empt that excruciating assault on the nation's figura, Mr Berlusconi rammed through a law that gave him immunity from prosecution. Yet the warrants and manacles of the law were in the end not needed for him to have the nation curling their toes and cramming cushions over their ears with embarrassment. All that was required was for Mr Berlusconi to lose his temper, and call that raucous German Social Democrat, Martin Schultz, a concentration camp "kappo".

La figura is for Italians more important, a more urgent imperative than la sostanza, the substance of things. But it is precisely the murkiness and ugliness and downright criminality of what goes on under the surface of present-day Italy that keeps bubbling up and destroying the splendid facade like a rash of carbuncles. In the unprecedentedly large and wide-ranging scandal that has this summer swallowed Italian football whole, nothing so crude as players throwing matches is alleged. If the prosecutors are right, in fact, the players were on the whole bit players in the scandal, guilty chiefly of failing to blow the whistle. They continued to play hard, but the outcome of the games they played in was at the mercy of referees who were not inept or incompetent or secretly partisan, but active members of a huge conspiracy. They had sold out to a gang of men, led, it is claimed, by the former Juventus managing director Luciano Moggi, who had constructed a phoney and corrupt hierarchy of status at the top of the Italian league which exactly reflected their own wishes.

What the prosecutors are confronting in the Football Federation trial that opened in Rome's Olympic stadium yesterday, according to Giuseppe D'Avanzo writing in La Repubblica newspaper, is "a system of informal or illegal practices, outside every norm, rule or accepted practice, capable of creating - via the control of referees and of other, weaker clubs, and with the acquiescence of the Federation and the League, with the complicity of players and their managers, in the absence of the vigilance of the institutions and the authorities - the prevalence of the interests of a closed handful of clubs. A perverse mechanism that 'institutionalised' disparity within football, destroyed the game, not through the activity of certain protagonists but of all those involved. It was like an epidemic."

On the eve of the opening of the trial, the two men complaining most bitterly about the whole proceedings were Mr Berlusconi, the owner of Milan, and his deadly rival, the patriarch of Tod's shoe firm, Diego della Valle, the owner of Fiorentina.

Mr Berlusconi's ill humour was aggravated by the fact that the "Calciopoli" inquiry was conducted by the veteran Milan magistrate Saverio Borrelli, who headed the Tangentopoli inquiries of the early 1990s that saw off Mr Berlusconi's patron, the former prime minister Bettino Craxi. When news of the scandal first broke in May, all media attention was focused on Turin and Juventus, where Mr Moggi was seen as the prime mover. Word of Milan's involvement came in fits and starts, furiously rejected by Mr Berlusconi and the club.

After news of the demands by the prosecutor broke on Tuesday - including not merely demotion for Milan but penalisation by three points next season - the media billionaire and former prime minister bristled: "I am outraged and indignant." His team, he went on, "have never received favours from referees. On the contrary, we have been the victim of refereeing favours performed for other clubs. It is difficult not to see in these absurd and disproportionate demands by the prosecutor a political motivation absolutely unacceptable in sport."

But as has often been the case with Mr Berlusconi's pronouncements of recent months, the truth would appear to be the exact opposite: news of the football scandal broke a month after the fall of his government, and all the shenanigans took place during his term as prime minister. Like the protection of the Mafia don Bernardo Provenzano and the network of corruption in the Bank of Italy, it took the eclipse of Mr Berlusconi for the truth to begin to come out.

Mr Della Valle's outrage seemed more soundly based. The king of posh shoes bought Fiorentina in 2002, after the previous Florence club went bust, and was loudly insisting this week that the scandal was absolutely nothing to do with him. He said: "If they want to convict me," he declared, "they will have to do it over my dead body. I am prepared to do anything [to prevent it], including recourse to the European Court of Justice...

"I am sick to my stomach with rage.Among other reasons because I am convinced that the sentence has already been written, they want to punish everyone in an exemplary fashion and come out of it as the heroes of Italian football. Guido Rossi [appointed head of the extraordinary committee that is dealing with the case] thinks of himself as above everybody, between [Italy's coach, Marcello] Lippi and the eternal father."

Across Italy this week, there have been similar cries of rage and indignation from the fans of the four clubs threatened. (The fourth one, which risks going out of business altogether due to its €6m debts, is Lazio.)

As Emanuela Audisio, a fan in Dortmund on Tuesday night, put it: "In the morning you break your heart and die, and in the evening you come back to life and survive. You are prey to bipolar depression, your team is no more, it's disappeared from Serie A. The national side still lives and is a step away from the World Cup ... Seven out of 11 Italy players are from Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina ... it's not a national side, it's a team without a home."